References to and versions of the old classic folk tune “Big Rock Candy Mountain” have surfaced in many forms over the decades. Many of us grew up on sanitized versions of the song, the “cigarette trees” and “alcohol springs” of the hobo heaven depicted in its lyrics revised into kid-friendly “peppermint trees” and “lemonade streams.” Anne Hathaway made me love her with her reference to its lyrics at the end of Brokeback Mountain, her embittered widow Lureen referring to the titular site as a fanciful place invented by a dreamer of a late husband, “where bluebirds sing and there’s a whiskey spring.” Perhaps its most famous use in recent memory is the appearance of the original 1928 recording by street busker Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock in the Coen Brothers’ acclaimed 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, included on its multi-platinum-selling soundtrack.
Of course it’s a given that old songs should appear in period films, and quoting song lyrics in a script (and, if you’re a nerd, in life) is fairly commonplace, but now and again the world is treated to that rare animal born of film’s close-knit relationship with popular music: the film adaptation of a song (see Ode To Billy Joe or The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia). The fact that film and comics belong to a similar mutual admiration society to that of film and music (not to mention the increasingly cinematic aesthetics of modern-day comics) makes the notion of a comic adaptation of a song seem a fairly natural progression.
Enter Rock Candy Mountain, the new series for Image Comics by Eisner-nominee Kyle Starks (Sexcastle). The rousing adventures of a tough transient in search of the fabled bum-topia, the series moves the timeframe forward twenty years from the original recording of “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” and infuses its slice of post-WWII hobo culture with heaping doses of action, humor, and fantasy.
Protagonist and boxcar veteran Bo Jackson–or, as he prefers, “Just Jackson”–has narrowly escaped two trenchcoated individuals (and, uh, the Devil) when he encounters a fellow drifter trying to hop his train. Taking the stranger under his wing, the two look set for a peaceful ride until old nemesis Marion “Boss” Flimbo climbs aboard with a gaggle of goons and a magic ring in tow. Some fightin’ words start a-flingin’, fists start a-flyin’, and Jackson is officially confirmed the badass of the story. As his newly-minted sidekick Pomona hilariously puts it, “He’s got punch diarrhea and their faces are the toilet bowl.”
Now when I refer to bum fights and the like, I’m sure you’re picturing a pulpy Hobo With A Shotgun-type story; I hate to crush those dreams, but this is not that kind of action-comedy. The dialogue relies on an old-timey sense of humor and occasional fairy-tale quirks that brings the chuckles without falling victim to period-sitcom corniness. Aesthetically Starks’ series boasts a noirish-yet-cartoonish quality, for me falling somewhere between the work of Craig Armstrong and Raggedy Man-by-way-of-Ulli Lust; it’s whimsical and fun, yet somehow still conveys that dusty, black-and-white Western-style American gravitas, thanks in part to Chris Schweizer’s muted color palette.
The premiere issue of Starks’ series serves more to set the stage and introduce its main characters and concept than to linger too long with details or reasons why. For now, the hobo drama and dust-ups are so much fun that a reader would likely be content to set any questions aside for later; however, as fun as they are I do find myself hoping there is a point to them that is eventually revealed, and that the violence (however cartoonish) isn’t just thrown in to drive home the point that this is a comic. Independent comics are more sophisticated than ever nowadays in terms of subject matter and storytelling; having chosen an aspect of American folklore not often tackled in modern comics as the basis for his series (though the afterword by Dr. Eric Newsom, which features a brief history of the source material and adjacent culture, is very informative), I hope Starks takes the opportunity in future issues to make good on the momentum and underscore that sense of fun with purposeful storytelling. Or maybe I’m just spoiled. Anyway, I’d keep reading this, if that endorsement ultimately means anything.